The hooves of sheep grow constantly, very much like our own fingernails. Over the millennia, humans have selected for the hooves’ rate of growth and their thickness, resulting in the white sheep of the flock (on whom we have applied more selection pressure) generally requiring the most frequent and heavy trimming. Hoof growth in wild sheep is much slower, and the terrain they travel wears down the outer rim of the hoof, essentially creating a “walking pedicure.” Some domestic flocks — particularly those that traverse large swaths of gravelly land in the West — likewise require little in the way of hoof trimming. The sheep of our flock do not have that advantage. They spend their days on soft black Iowa soil lushly covered in green growth. There is nothing rough to wear down their hooves, so we must do it for them at our annual hoof-trimming extravaganza — which happens tomorrow!
I will be honest: I dread hoof trimming. By this point in the year, the hooves are generally overly long, and with forty to fifty ewes to trim and four hooves per ewe, we trim between 160 and 200 hooves in one day — and end up with a lot of blisters. We try to assemble six to twelve volunteers, who work on teams of two or three (one “trimmer” and one or two “holders” per team), with each team responsible for a percentage of the flock. Our process is pretty low-tech. The holder(s) catch a ewe from the flock and drop her to the ground, holding her head so that she cannot run off while the trimmer sits on the ground at the ewe’s side.
It’s up to the holder to keep the ewe from struggling by keeping her gently but firmly in place. The technique is pretty simple but the details are very important: hold the head to the ground and pull one of the bottom legs up and away from the ground. Any deviation from this position will cause the ewe to believe that she can get away, and a struggle will ensue — with thrashing hooves that can be very sharp. Keeping the sheep calm and relaxed is all about letting them know they have no chance at escape. Once they realize that they can’t get away, they’ll relax beneath you and give in to the situation — which allows the work to begin.
A sheep’s hoof has two halves, each shaped somewhat like a teardrop, with the pointy part forward. The hoof naturally grows hardest and longest all around the point and is softest at the rounded section of the teardrop (the heel). That area is generally soft enough that it wears away pretty well over the year, but the area around the point requires nearly all of the trimming. The area inside the teardrop does not grow — it is flat, relatively tough tissue that determines how far we will trim the outer hoof material. The goal is to trim the hard outer portions so that they become flush with the inner tissues, producing a nice flat surface on which the sheep can walk.
At first it can be hard to figure out exactly what needs to be done. We first remove any manure that has packed itself in or around the hoof, allowing for a better view of what is there. The next thing is to figure out exactly where the excess hoof has gone. Is it folded across the flat underside of the hoof? Did it crack and fold out, curling up along the outside of the hoof? Did it break off? Some ewes will grow so much hoof over the year that the front of the hoof begins to curl up like the point of an elf shoe. If left like this for too long, the sheep will begin to walk with “weak pasterns,” angling their feet back to accommodate the longer hoof tips.
Once we identify the excess hoof material, we trim it off. Since it’s dead — like our fingernails — it doesn’t hurt the sheep when we cut. As we trim closer to the living tissues of the hoof — much like the quick of our nails — a white line appears. This white line is an indication that we are nearing the quick. At this point we begin to shape the hoof, knowing there is little left to safely trim away. The goal is a flat walking surface, so we trim toward that goal.
If the hoof gets cut too close, it generally won’t bleed too much — and any bleeding will stop with the application of blood-stop powder or a bit of pressure. If we accidentally cut our own nails to the quick and make them bleed, we are careful how we use that nail until it heals up. Similarly, if the hoof is trimmed too closely and bleeds, the sheep may limp a bit for a day or two as the hoof heals. There is no need to worry, however — limping due to this cause generally clears up quickly and without issues.
It is important that breeding ewes stand on strong, well-trimmed feet. Hooves that are overly long or poorly shaped cause sore feet and can produce an odd stance. When the ram mounts the ewe, she bears his additional weight (upwards of 250 pounds!) on her rear legs. If the ewe has sore feet, she may be unable to stand for him, preventing a successful breeding — something we definitely want to avoid!
So tomorrow is pedicure day for the ewes at Peeper Hollow Farm! This hoof trimming will start the final countdown to breeding, which begins for our sheep on Sept. 18th. We’re almost to the beginning of the 2017 lambing year! Wow, how time flies!